The Hawaii Public Utilities Commission has again denied permission to a tree-burning power plant on the Big Island’s Hamakua coast to begin operating.

In a lengthy decision issued on Friday, two of the commission’s three members rejected Hu Honua and Hawaiian Electric’s motions for reconsideration of an earlier PUC denial of a power purchase agreement between the companies. The pair also denied Hu Honua’s request for a hearing on the matter.

Chairman Jay Griffin and commissioner Jennifer Potter signed the denials. Commissioner Leodoloff Asuncion abstained.

Portrait of Jay Griffin fronting the Territorial Office Building
PUC chair Jay Griffin is one of two commission members who has consistently rejected proposals for an energy plant on the Big Island that would burn trees for power. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

In denying the request for reconsideration, the quasi-judicial body said it provided ample opportunity for Hu Honua to respond to arguments made by other parties, noting that the company filed “approximately 830 pages, collectively, of briefing and exhibits.”

The commission said its findings and conclusions reached in May are “soundly grounded in the record” and it would be inappropriate to grant a motion for reconsideration.

The president of Hu Honua, which does business as Honua Ola Bioenergy, said that company is disappointed by Friday’s decision but is not giving up.

Honua Ola Bioenergy President Warren Lee gives a presentation about Hu Honua power plant. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

“Honua Ola is in the right on this issue and we owe it to our employees who have stuck with us, and to the Big Island residents who support Honua Ola’s commitment to provide clean, renewable energy,” said Warren Lee in a news release.

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With Friday’s decision, Hu Honua has exhausted the current PUC process and must return to court if it wants to continue its lengthy and contentious fight to fire up. The company will weigh its legal options, including filing an appeal with the Hawaii Supreme Court, Lee said.

Hu Honua’s current docket before the PUC dates to May 2017 and contains more than 1,000 documents, some hundreds of pages long. The PUC had twice before approved a power purchase agreement between Hu Honua and Hawaiian Electric, in 2013 and 2017, but it got bogged down in litigation.

The latest PUC action stems from its May 23 decision to deny Hu Honua  an amended power purchase agreement. The commission cited concerns about greenhouse gas emissions from the plant, uncertainly over carbon sequestration estimates, the high cost of electricity the plant would generate and how it could displace lower-cost, renewable energy sources on the island.

Eucalyptus logs wait to be chipped and used as fuel at the Hu Honua plant. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The commission noted that Hawaiian Electric has stated it doesn’t need Hu Honua’s power and the utility is uncertain whether adding it would speed the retirement of any existing fossil fuel-burning units.

While the commission gave thumbs down in its May decision based on the existing record, it didn’t entirely close the door on Hu Honua. The company can come forward in a future round of competitive bidding. If selected, the company would have the chance to re-negotiate a new power purchase agreement with Hawaiian Electric and have it reviewed by the PUC.

One of the longstanding critics of the project and parties to the docket, Life of the Land, was buoyed by Friday’s decision. Executive director Henry Curtis called Hu Honua’s Big Island plant a “boondoggle project” that deserved to be rejected.

Henry Curtis gov's PUC appointment. 29 june 2016
Henry Curtis, Life of the Land Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

“Hu Honua proposed extremely expensive electricity that would release high levels of greenhouse gases,” said Curtis.

In addition, Hu Honua made empty, speculative statements about how the greenhouse gases would be offset, he said.

Hawaiian Electric is reviewing the decision and didn’t have any immediate comment, said spokesperson Kristen Okinaka.

Hu Honua has stepped up its public outreach since May, creating videos, issuing news releases and staging street rallies by employees and union members in Honolulu and on Maui. Longshore and warehouse workers have been joined by members of electrical, engineering, laborer, carpenter, postal worker and machinist unions.

Hu Honua press releases repeatedly note that Griffin is leaving his position as PUC chair on June 30. Gov. David Ige has appointed attorney Naomi Kuwaye to the commission to serve a six-year term starting in July and running through 2028. Kuwaye has been an attorney for more than 25 years and has specialized in administrative, environmental and public utilities law.

Among the companies she has represented is Hawaiian Electric. Kuwaye has stated she worked on a confidential due diligence memo for Hu Honua several years ago to evaluate land use and regulatory compliance issues.

Asked at her Senate confirmation hearing in April if she would recuse herself on the PUC from any matters related to Hu Honua, Kuwaye said she didn’t want to give an answer one way or the other. But she said she would confer with PUC attorneys and the state ethics commission first.

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